Challenges

CHALLENGES

The price of notoriety in the martial arts is the "Challenge." Once you're established as a prominent competitor, fighter, or instructor, it's only a matter of time before you become a target stepping stone in someone's search for recognition. It's dog eat dog, big eat small, code of the west, only the strong survive, call it what you will. In the end, the burden of talent is having to prove it against all comers. As with boxers, there is ultimately only one possible outcome. That is, to relinquish the prize, seldom willingly, through defeat. Though recent years have produced several middle aged champions, the harsh reality remains that as you age, your physical and mental processes gradually deteriorate. In the end, you succumb. Only the shadow of achievement remains. Unless...perhaps...you have mastered your art beyond the physical.

"You only have to do two things to beat me...knock me down, and keep me down!" Sensei said this hundreds of times and I knew the words well. "If you can knock me down and keep me down, I will take my belt off, and give it to you...I'll call you Master!"

He made it clear from our first meeting. If I ever felt superior to him as a martial artist, the door was open for me to take his belt...if I could. I was one of the knowing few. He and I had worked together. I was permitted to feel his power first hand. How to describe the many occasions when I would throw a kick or a punch and suddenly, not knowing how, found myself floating in the air, face to ceiling, back to the floor, Sensei's elbow in my rib cage, fingers in my eyes, then hitting the floor while his elbow dug deep into my chest pinning me helplessly to the ground. Always, at the last instant, the technique relaxed, as I flirted with unconsciousness.

Until working with Sensei, my "fight" consisted of sending single techniques through openings in my opponent's defenses, blocking and parrying, avoiding, dodging, trapping, tripping, sweeping, throwing and disabling...laid out like pearls on a string. When Sensei executed, everything happened at once. Frankly, it took me years of exposure before I could even begin to "see" the things he was doing.

Having experienced the complexities of his responses, I was puzzled that when working with other students, his response to attacks would be on a more basic level. I observed differences in the way he taught different students. Our group worked out as a class, and sometimes as individuals. He would move about, and during interfaces with each of us, impart discrete units of knowledge which became cornerstones for each student's own foundation to fighting.

"The teacher must measure the student. A good parent does not put a loaded gun into the hand of an infant. The teacher must know the mind, the spirit and heart of the student, lest by accident he provide weapons the student does not have the maturity to handle." With each student, he tailored a course appropriate for that student to follow.

There were some elementary reasons for Sensei's hesitancy to teach everything to everyone. For one thing, his store of knowledge was immense. During my time with Sensei, whenever I was exposed to a new technique, he would insist I leave the workout area, record the technique, then return. I would go to the side and try to describe the new technique verbally into a recorder...to be transcribed when I returned to my apartment. Now, I have volumes of transcripts, and I can't think of any lessons being repeated.

Others, were not so fortunate as I. There were some who worked with him for years, and learned little more than how to throw punches and kicks. Sensei would explain, "I taught them what they asked to learn. They wanted fight...fight...fight, speed and power, speed and power! I would have given them anything, but that is what they asked for, and, in their own way, they were telling me what they could be responsible for." Undoubtedly, Sensei's judgment in this area was impeccable, for inevitably, these students would receive their black belts then proclaim soon after that they had mastered the art, and could defeat even Sensei in open competition.

Sensei fully understood human nature, and always kept something in reserve.

Perhaps they were foolish, perhaps innocently naive, but broadcasting such reckless comments about a man so committed to honor and the martial way was playing with fire.

In public, Sensei wore a red sash. "I never used to wear a red sash, but I saw what everyone else was teaching, and they would wear their black belts, their first degrees, their second degrees, and they said they could do this and that, and they could do kata and they could break bricks and boards, but when I watch them move, there is nothing of substance. Meeting me, they would ask what style I had studied. Style!!! It is just a word. Like tree! Horse! Apple! Someone who truly understands the martial arts, never asks questions about style. He already knows there is only one style, and that style is You!...What is inside You! I don't pretend to be the best. Maybe I am, maybe I'm not. I don't know the answer to that, and I really don't care to know. I do know that I'm pretty good, and that all somebody has to do to beat me is knock me down and keep me down. To make it worth their wile, a long time ago, I put on a red sash, and created my own "Style." I really didn't want to do it, but I guess I had to do it because whenever people would ask me what my style was, I felt I had to give them a good answer...something they could relate to. So, my style is Wai Yu Fu. If you mess with me, you're bound to hear, "Why, you fool?"

Sensei would laugh uncontrollably when he said this.

Quite honestly, I never did figure whether this explanation was true, and if that was really how he evolved the name of his style. Just possibly, the only reason he wore the red belt was so those around him would know that he viewed his skills as being on a plane above theirs, and as such, warranted a special level of recognition. I knew him well enough to know the recognition meant nothing, and the belt was of no meaningful consequence. What he was saying to the world was "You are invited to learn from me about the heart of the martial arts. To make it worth your while, I offer two things, my friendship to you who come in peace, or my red sash, mark of a master, to those of you who come to challenge. Inevitably, those who came as challengers left with nothing.

It was a beautiful autumn day, and we had been working techniques at Sensei's camp in the woods. I was off on my own when the trail of dust rising on the driveway told me a car was fast approaching. The driver pulled up beside the mobile home where Sensei and his family resided. The driver stepped out, too hurried to shut the car door, and went to Sensei's oldest son, Jason, also a student.

"Are you the Master?"

"No, you're looking for my Dad, he's over there," Jason replied, as though he had gone through this same routine many times in the past. With a flick of his head, Jason motioned that I follow him, and we both trailed behind the impetuous stranger, as he fast approached Sensei.

What always amazed me about these guys was their total lack of creativity in challenging someone to a fight. I mean, even those of us who aren't martial artists have seen enough Kung Fu movies to know that you don't walk up to a master, or someone you think may be a master, or even someone you think may not be a master, but you're not sure, and then demean him to his face. It doesn't take a mental giant to appreciate that if the guy's for real, then what you're doing is tantamount to asking for a tattoo across the front of your face..."Idiot! "

Well, as this stranger closed on Sensei, it was clear he stood well over six feet tall, and looked to weigh more than 225 pounds. He was heavily muscled, and projected an air of confidence, strength, and determination. If I were to mold the quintessential "image" of challengers, he might even fit the bill.

"Are you the Master?", he barked, looking down at Sensei.

Jason was silently puppeting the words he had heard so many times before.

"What can I do for you sir?", responded Sensei, already knowing the response would be "I've heard that you're a master and that you're supposed to be a great fighter, but I know that I can beat you." It always got down to the bottom line..."Sir, all you have to do be the master is knock me down, and after you knock me down, keep me down. That's it!" At this point, Sensei would be silent, expecting everything.

For me, this first time was a study in contrasts. The challenger wore his martial arts ability like a neon sign, flashing it in every direction, as though it were a badge of power with which he could intimidate, cajole, dominate or suppress whoever or whatever might cross his path. Sensei stood casually in what to all but the most experienced eye was little more than a relaxed standing position. He did not have to "wear his fight" to project skill.

"Well, I'm waiting," Sensei delivered his usual words of encouragement to the challenger, who then assumed a preferred fighting stance. To Sensei's eye, this guaranteed any move the challenger made from that point would be projected beforehand in time to react with an appropriate counter. Instantly, the side of the challenger's left foot was rocketing towards Sensei's head. It appeared to be a certain hit, but for the fact when the foot arrived at the space where Sensei's head had been, there was nothing. Sensei was already on the ground, snaking his feet around the challenger's supporting leg, slamming him down, face forward, to the ground. There was a loud thud as the man's weight flattened like a bag of flour onto the woodland floor.

When he rose to his feet, I could see his nose and his mouth were bloodied, and as though reading lines from a script, Jason whispered into my ear, "You were lucky that time...there's no way in hell you're going to do that again" predicting the challenger's words as he again squared off against Sensei.

Sensei approached him, stopping a respectful distance from his front and replied, "Sir, now don't get me wrong, because I'm not trying to put you down. With the way you fight, I could do anything I want to you, and there's not a thing you could do to stop me."

True or not, this was waving the red flag in front of a wounded bull. There was a scream, as the challenger exploded forth with multiple hand and foot techniques. Without changing positions, Sensei melted away from the several incoming attacks. The only counter visible to myself and Jason was a lightning punch to the challenger's sternum as Sensei stepped inside the attack.

Within martial arts circles, there is much chatter and rumor about what is called the "one inch punch." Depending on the legend, the story, or the account, the one inch punch is theoretically executed from a distance of approximately one inch from the target, but because of the dynamics, the true "one inch punch" is supposed to have the full impact and power of a punch thrown from a maximum power position.

Well, whether or not this was the one inch punch, I can't say. To me, it looked as though Sensei had merely touched the challenger with a close in movement. There was a sound like an awl splitting a wooden log, and the challenger hurtled backwards through space landing on the ground writhing in pain.

Sensei approached and said, "Well friend, you're down again!" At which point the challenger got up to execute another attack, using his remaining energy, in a last effort to recover his honor. There was a second punch, and I knew it was over as the challenger flipped over backwards, shoulders dipping to the ground, feet lifting skyward.

He would not get up again. Lying there in pain, his last conscious words were "You win!" which Jason, standing to my front, had already begun to mimic as the challenger whispered them a second time, through teeth gripped in pain.

From the background, Sensei's whispered words floated by on the breeze, "Why, you fool?"

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